How many times have you said, or heard the expression, “Only the Steelers could have won that game”. Well Ravens fans, this year, many in the Steel City and last week in San Diego, are starting to use that phrase in describing how your team is performing this season.
For the first time in franchise history, the 9-2 Baltimore Ravens have an opportunity to sweep their hated division rivals in consecutive seasons. What is ironic about this season is that we are watching a Ravens team win games very much like Steelers teams from the past few seasons have, including the two that went onto play in the Super Bowl.
If you closed your eyes last Sunday, you could easily see Ben Roethlisberger hitting Hines Ward on a quick screen and watch as Ward rambled to make a first down, 30 yards later. Only the Steelers could have been the third team in the past 25 years to convert “4th & 29” and the first to win the game when doing so with the game on the line.
Thanks in part to a fourth-and-29 miracle catch-and-run by Ray Rice and Justin Tucker's 38-yard field goal with one minute, seven seconds left in overtime, the Ravens are sitting pretty with only five games to play. A win today against the black and yellow coupled with a Bengals loss where the Ravens won last week and the AFC North crown will stay in the Charm City.
While the Ravens won’t earn many, if any style points this season in how they win games, they are a team that seems to have learned from past mistakes and don’t lose the close games they once did.
Following a Week 9, 23-20 last minute win in Pittsburgh last season, which allowed the Ravens to complete a sweep of the Steelers, they traveled to Seattle and played poorly in losing 22-17 to a 2-6 Seahawks team.
The Ravens lacked a finishing touch, didn’t play Ravens football and failed to give their playmaker a chance to make significant impact during the loss. Ray Rice touched the ball just 13 times in defeat prompting the media and several players to harshly criticize offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s play calling.
The ship was steered back on course and although the Ravens made it more difficult on themselves, they still managed to win the division thanks to the sweep over Pittsburgh as both teams finished 12-4.
In the playoffs, Pittsburgh lost to Tim Tebow in overtime and the Ravens----well, as Paul Harvey used to say, you know the rest of that story.
This season seems to represent a reversal of fortunes for both teams. The Steelers are not winning the games they once did and the Ravens are winning the games they could not in the past. Pittsburgh, with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, started the season 2-3 and coughed up fourth leads in four of their first six games this season.
For the Ravens, playmakers began popping up immediately and at just the right time. They still haven’t lost at home since Steelers safety Troy Polamalu sacked and stripped Joe Flacco of the football on a fateful early December night back in 2010. The Ravens are now 4-2 on the road and 5-0 at home this season. It hasn’t been easy and yes there are a few games that they should have lost but thanks to a little “Steelers luck”-----or should I say “Ravens fortunes”, they didn’t. Remember what they about say luck, it happens when hard work meets solid preparation. And the Ravens have worked hard to overcome key injuries on defense to post the second best record in the AFC and the NFL for that matter.
Pittsburgh enters M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday trailing the Ravens by three games and is coming off an ugly loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers loss to the Browns was disturbing in that a Mike Tomlin led team committed eight turnovers, and was penalized nine times during the 20-14 key division loss. All four Steelers running backs put the ball on the ground and third string QB Charlie Batch threw three interceptions.
To compound Tomlins problems, injuries continue to mount. They lost left guard Willie Colon before the game, and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (ankle) early into it. They lost right tackle Mike Adams (ankle) as well, leaving the Steelers without a back-up offensive lineman in a game for the third time this season.
Mike Tomlin announced on Tuesday that Adams will be out and Woodley is doubtful. Woodley was replaced by Jason Worilds in Cleveland and responded by sacking Browns QB Brandon Weeden twice. Rookie seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum replaced Adams when he went down, and Doug Legursky started at left guard for Colon.
This is hardly an ideal offensive line situation for a struggling Pittsburgh offense that is without its top two quarterbacks. Not to mention a rushing attack that gained just 49 yards in Cleveland and has failed to reach 100 yards rushing in two of its last three games.
In Baltimore, the Ravens have had their share of injuries as well. Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb have been out since Week 6 and they have have lost backups and have had defensive players missing all over the field at key times, not including Ed Reed, who is playing at about 70 percent.
However, the defense is getting better as the weeks wear on. Since the Ravens bye week and during the month of November, no team in the NFL has allowed fewer points than Baltimore’s defense. The Ravens have surrendered just 58-points (14.5 ppg) after surrendering 94 (23.5 ppg) in the previous four games.
Experts say the Ravens do not play well on the road but they are 4-2 away from the big ATM. At M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens have the best home field advantage in the NFL. The Ravens have been dominant at home during the John Harbaugh Era (2008-12), winning 15-straight contests and 23 of their last 24 at home. Baltimore’s 15-game home winning streak currently ranks as the NFL’s longest. Additionally, it is the longest home mark in Ravens history.
The offense, which averages just 287.3 yards and 16.5 points on the road, and still managed to beat the Steelers with only 200 yards of offense at Heinz Filed two weeks ago, is as potent as any offense in the league at home.
The Ravens have scored an average of 36.8 points per game at M&T Bank Stadium this season, ranking as the NFL’s best mark among home teams. Baltimore has scored at least 31 points in four of five home games this season and at least 44 in two contests. Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and company average 421.2 yards per game and have not recorded less than 300 yards in any game.
Ironically, Sunday’s win in San Diego was just the second time in six road games Baltimore surpassed 300 total yards. The fact that the Ravens had just 95 yards of offense at halftime and finished with a season road high of 443 was indeed a feat worthy of an Edgar Allen Poe poem.
While the Ravens somehow seem like a team with answers to every troubling question, the Steelers seem to have nothing but continuing question marks this season. Pittsburgh has the No.1 ranked defense in the NFL but as Ravens fans can attest, high defensive rankings are nice to brag about from September to early January, but have only helped solve the equation for an entire season once back in 2000.
If last year proved anything, it was that having a top ranked defense does not really mean much. Baltimore is 16th on offense and 24th (and climbing) on defense. No big deal, really. Just look where the Giants (27) and Patriots (31) ended the 2011 season in the defensive rankings.
Keeping teams from scoring touchdowns is where it’s really at these days in the pass happy NFL. Allowing points is another story and the Ravens are just as good as Pittsburgh in keeping opponents out of the end zone. The Ravens have allowed just nine fewer points than the Steelers have this season.
It is not as if the Ravens are playing two at home followed by two on the road, or one and one. Nope, the Ravens have won on the road the hard way. After playing four games in 18 days to start the season, three at home, the Ravens began a weary scheduling cycle that saw them play just once at M&T in October, and once in the month of November.
The Steelers success during the past few seasons is exactly how the Ravens are getting it done this season. The Ravens make you pay for turning the ball over, do not turn it over themselves, play great special teams and keep the play between the 20’s on defense.
The Ravens have one less turnover this season than the Steelers had last week vs. the Browns. Baltimore has committed an amazingly low nine turnovers this season (Pittsburgh had 8 last week). Two fumbles all season long is not a typo. One more time because how often do we actually get to do this Ravens fans, the two fumbles for the season are three less than the Steelers lost week in Cleveland.
The Ravens offense, which once struggled in the red zone, is now tenth in the league. The Ravens have produced 51 plays of 20-or-more yards this season, ranking as the NFL’s third most entering Week 13. Baltimore also has 47 passing plays of at least 20 yards, ranking fourth in the league.
QB Joe Flacco and the Ravens cash in when the opportunity presents itself. The Ravens have a 92.9 percent success rate in goal-to-go touchdown situations this season. They have 13 TD’s in 14 chances when they sticks say first and goal. That is tops in the NFL.
Special teams have played a huge part of the black and purple’s success this season. According to the NFL Outsiders website, The Ravens have the best special teams by a lot in the NFL this season. Jacoby Jones was named the AFC Special team’s player of the month in November for his efforts and has three special teams return TD’s in 11 games.
What can you say about head coach John Harbaugh’s decision to keep an undrafted rookie kicker over Billy Cundiff? Justin Tucker has been money all season and seems to literally have ice water in his veins. His game tying and winning field goals last week helped me remember a time when Ravens kickers could not be counted on with consistency in high-pressure situations. Do you remember the 31-yard try kicker Steve Hauschka missed in Minnesota that would have capped off a remarkable comeback against Brett Favre and the Vikings in 2010? Need I even mention “wide left” last January in New England? NOT THIS YEAR.
Everything seems to be falling quite nicely into place for the Ravens. Today’s game seems odd in that Ravens fans are not wondering if their team will beat the Steelers today but by how much.
While that may sound a bit overconfident and cocky, did you ever try to carry on a conversation with a Steelers fan when they were winning this way? Many of the questions surrounding the Ravens are the same questions that surround their quarterback.
Joe Flacco’s not elite, he’s not Eli, Peyton or Tom Brady. No, he is not----- but he has won a lot of games. In Flacco’s 53 regular season wins (tied with Matt Ryan for the most by a starting QB since 2008), Flacco is 973-of-1,562 (62.3) for 12,098 yards, 70 TDs and 20 INTs (95.9 rating).
Including the postseason, Flacco’s 58 career wins since entering the league gives him the best winning percentage and record of any quarterback in the league during that period. Flacco is 58-26 since taking over in 08 and ahead of names such as Brees (54-26), Rodgers (57-27) and Roethlisberger (52-22). They said he couldn’t beat the Steelers, so he’s gone out and beat them three times in a row and also three times in a row in the big ketchup bottle. Two of those wins came as Flacco led the Ravens to touchdowns in the game’s final minute.
He has 13 game winning drives in his career with number 13 being as impressive as any. Joe Cool had just 59 yards of passing at the half-last week in San Diego but finished with 355 yards. His maturation is a microcosm of how the Ravens are developing before our very eyes.
Are they lucky? Perhaps------how else can you explain Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel fumbling a perfect snap when he needed just 1 yard for a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter of a game the Ravens won by three points on Oct. 7. What else would explain how both the Chiefs and Cleveland Browns (on Nov. 4) had fourth quarter, go-ahead touchdowns erased by penalties?
Statistically this season, opponents have gained 271 more yards, generated 27 more first downs and averaged over five more minutes of ball possession per game.
Ravens.com columnist John Eisenberg said it best when he said the Ravens aren’t lucky they play solid football. “They hit hard. Don’t give anything away. Let your defense keep you in it until something good happens. It’s not a dominant approach and it’s not what qualifies as “pretty” in this era of pinball passing totals, so it is labeled “winning ugly,” which is fine”.
“While some might say the Ravens were lucky to go 2-0 the past two weeks despite scoring just one offensive touchdown, their defense kept them close, they did not commit a turnover and a big play put them over the top in each game”.
The Chiefs are not 1-10 because they are unlucky. They are just bad. The Browns are not 3-8 because they’re unlucky. They are a talented team that has lost some winnable games because they do not know how to win, which is a byproduct of youth and years of losing.
The Ravens appear to be on a mission. A mission that started last January following a loss in the AFC Championship game. Like any mission, there are bumps and unexpected obstacles along the way, but how you overcome adversity define you and your team. Right now, the Ravens are starting to define themselves as a team that just wins.
Head coach John Harbaugh has done everything except win the Lombardi Trophy. The Ravens own a 53-22 regular season record. Including playoffs (5-4), they are 58-26 in the Harbaugh Era; tying (NE) for the NFL’s most total wins since his Baltimore arrival.
In case you were wondering what Harbaugh and the Ravens are doing to accomplish that goal, you are watching it every Sunday. They are learning how to win the games they did not in the past-----by any means necessary. Stats do not matter, production and wins do.
A certain quarterback will be in the building today when the Ravens and Steelers kick-off and he knows all about how luck, and I am not talking about Andrew, can play a part in a title run.
This certain QB once posted the following stats in a certain big game. He was 9-for-21 for a paltry 123 yards. He did not throw a touchdown but had two interceptions during the contest. His quarterback rating was a surreal 22.6, the lowest ever for this game.
Despite his play, is team found a way to win the big game and in doing so captured their fifth Super Bowl title.
The QB is Ben Roethlisberger and of course, the team is the Steelers. Pittsburgh beat the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl XL, as they scored on a field goal, a 75-yard run TD, and a trick play. WR Antwan-Randal El threw a 43-yard TD pass to fellow receiver and game MVP, Hines Ward.
This same Steelers team became the first team ever to win three road games in the playoffs enroute to a championship. Lucky does not describe what the Steelers were that season, especially in the playoffs. You don’t need to look any further than Roethlisberger’s game saving ankle tackle on Colts defensive back Nick Harper in the AFC Divisional playoffs. Harper was on his way for a game winning touchdown after Jerome Bettis fumbled the ball at the two-yard line late in the contest. Oh, by the way, Colts kicker and at the time mister automatic, Mike Vanderjagdt missed a 46-yard game tying field goal attempt with just 21 seconds remaining.
My point is that all of this should sound familiar, the Steelers won and win unconventionally and when they go to work every day, they walk past those Lombardi trophies that Harbaugh is missing.
Harbs and the Ravens have nothing to apologize for with how they win. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous to even say? “Can you believe the Ravens converted a fourth and 29” or “We caught a break on that play” are phrases heard around locker rooms with winning teams and heard often. There certainly isn’t anything wrong saying congratulations to the 2013 Super Bowl Champion, Baltimore Ravens------Because if the Ravens just keep finding ways to win, that is exactly where they are headed this season, to the Super Bowl!
And besides, what if was just luck for the Ravens. Wasn't the foundation of Baltimore football built on one of the NFL's greatest teams in the 50's and 60's that had a horseshoe on the side of it's helmet? It's not luck and the Steelers will find out the hard way inn less than hour. Go Ravens!
Final Score Prediction today:
Ravens 31 Steelers 17